One thing that fascinates me the most is the idea of food taboos. Although other cultures may seem unique and colorful to us, we often forget that there are many of our own. These don't stay the same as cultures change, and new foods can often bring up foodie fears. If my inbox is any indication, one seems to be growing in the West: The idea that seedsless fruits are dangerous.
It seems that this belief is a common one. The entire biological function of fruits in nature is to spread the seeds of the plants to ensure the survival and development of the species. However, if fruits are not seedless it means that they have been deliberately manipulated to lose their basic biology through industrial agriculture. This will make them less nutritious. These fruits are not only less nutritious but can even be harmful, according to some of the more extreme advocates.
I was able to search for the term "seedless fruit" using an internet search engine. It returned suggestions such as bad, bad or good, GMO, bible, and bad. The last question is the most interesting. It seems that a large portion of the internet considers seedless fruit to be contrary to the teachings of God and, in particular anti-abortion beliefs. This means that seedless fruits may not only be unhealthy but also unethical. Let's take a closer look at seedless fruits and their production process, given all the controversy.
Parthenocarpy is a biological process that results in seedless fruits. This allows for the development of fruit without any prior fertilisation. This can happen in the human environment, but it is also possible. It is often a combination of both.
Banana fruit in the wild are packed with hard, ball-shaped seeds, making them difficult to eat. The Palaeolithic peoples from South-East Asia, Melanesia noticed a naturally occurring cross between two banana varieties that produced infertile offspring. Archaeological evidence supports this. They were able, thousands of years ago, to propagate clones of the new wonder plant by splitting off the banana plants around their base, and replanting them.
Palaeolithic peoples from South-East Asia introduced clones of the naturally seedless banana plant to other parts of the globe.
Similar events have taken place in many fruits that have a long history. Thompson Seedless grapes are the most popular in world trade. This variety is often cited as an example of modern genetic manipulation. However, it is actually a US trade name for a Turkish cultivar dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Today, genetically sterile hybrids are still being developed, as is the relatively recent invention of seedless watermelons.
Genetic crossing is not necessary to produce seedless fruits. Sometimes, even perfectly fertile plants can produce seedless fruit without pollination. To stop bees pollinating their flowers, some citrus farmers will place fine mesh nets on their trees. This results in seedless fruit. But there's a simpler way. Some fruit varieties are naturally self-sterile, and can only produce viable seeds if they are crossed with another genetically diverse variety. For example, many pineapples can be made seedless by growing only one variety in a field and keeping them away from their partners who will produce viable seeds.
There are also chemical interventions that can be used in order to produce seedless fruit. However, these only make up a small percentage of the market.
What effect does the absence of seeds have on nutrition? Seeds are often rich in nutrients such as fibre. This can mean that seed-containing fruits may be slightly more nutritious than those without seeds. These seeds can also be rich in beneficial phytonutrients, such as polyphenols. However, this assumes that you do not eat the seeds but also crush them with your teeth to make these compounds more digestible. Have you ever eaten all the seeds from a non-seedless grape or orange variety, rather than spitting them out.
There is also the issue of popularity. If people don't want to eat the crop, it doesn't matter how nutritious. Although the nutritional differences between seeded varieties and those without seeds are minimal, it is clear that people have been eating more grapes and citrus fruits since the introduction of seedless varieties. When viewed in this critical, larger context, seedless fruits are a net gain for nutrition.
Jamess Week What am I reading?
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Another season of Follow the Food is out. This BBC global documentary examines how civilisation will feed the planet in 2050, given the dangers of climate change and an increasing population.
This column is published monthly. Up next week: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein